A series of secret weekend meetings in Vienna between Iranian and European diplomats led to a promise from Tehran yesterday to suspend some nuclear activities in exchange for improved trade with Britain, France and Germany, according to U.S and European diplomats.
But the offer, just days ahead of a meeting on Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency, does not include work in a key area of uranium conversion, a process that could accelerate Iran's chances of developing a nuclear weapon, if it chooses to do so.
France, Britain and Germany are still mulling over the offer, officials said, giving the Bush administration less than a week to try to convince them that the time for incentives and deals is over. U.S. officials, who saw the Iranian offer as a stalling tactic, still acknowledged a tough week ahead and said Group of Eight meetings in Geneva tomorrow and Friday would be critical.
As of yesterday, the Bush administration and the European trio had drawn up separate and competing resolutions to be presented to the IAEA board when it meets next week in Vienna, according to officials involved in both sides of the negotiations.
The U.S. resolution would find Iran in noncompliance of its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and would refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions or oil embargoes.
The European plan, which is favored by a majority of the IAEA's 35-member board, would call for a full suspension of Iran's suspect nuclear program but delay the possibility of Security Council action until late November, when the board is to meet again. The European proposal would call on the IAEA to complete a full review of Iran's nuclear efforts, which the board would judge in November.
So far, the United States has received indications from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan that they would support the U.S. position if the Europeans could be brought on board. U.S. officials, who would discuss tactics only on the condition of anonymity, said that would be their goal. Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton, the administration's point man on nonproliferation issues, is meeting his G-8 counterparts in Geneva tomorrow and Friday, and Iran is expected to feature prominently in the discussions.
If the United States is successful, it will take the unusual step of calling for a vote at next week's IAEA board meeting. The board traditionally operates by consensus, but if opinion could be more evenly divided, a vote could achieve the administration's goal of getting the matter to the Security Council.
As an incentive, U.S. diplomats have been quietly promising they would not seek sanctions or other punitive resolutions inside the council. Instead, they are looking for a unified statement of support for continued IAEA inspections in Iran. The softer approach is meant to ease concerns by other countries worried that the Bush administration may be using the council as a steppingstone toward military action against Tehran.
Iran, rich in oil and natural gas, insists that its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed at securing a stable energy source. The nuclear work it has been conducting is allowable under the nuclear NPT, but the United States and others believe Iran is using the treaty as a cover for clandestine work.
Over the past 18 months, IAEA inspectors have found inconsistencies and unanswered questions in Iran's account of its program and intentions. But last week, the agency reported that Iran had improved cooperation and that inspectors had found plausible answers for some of the suspicious activity.
Still, the IAEA will not give Iran a clean bill of health. The board, which passed a resolution in June calling on Iran to halt all nuclear work that could be used in a weapons program, is to review the latest IAEA report and Iran's current offer when it meets next week.
On Monday evening, after two days of negotiations with European diplomats, the Iranians told IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei that they would halt all work related to centrifuges, the equipment that can enrich uranium for weapons. In response, ElBaradei dispatched a new team of inspectors to inventory Iran's centrifuge parts and equipment.
State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher dismissed Iran's latest promise as a ploy it had tried in the past.
"You don't have to look back too far to find Iranian officials saying that they were going to suspend production of centrifuge and use of centrifuges, and then to find them saying that, no, they were going to go ahead anyway," Boucher said.
Last year, Iran cut a deal with the Europeans ahead of an IAEA meeting that prevented the board from taking any tough action against Tehran. But the deal eventually fell apart, and Iran announced in June that it had restarted programs it promised to suspend.